WASHINGTON — Before the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, BP and drilling rig owner Transocean focused their safety efforts on curtailing worker injury rather than preventing catastrophic well blowouts, all but ignoring critical lessons from two near-misses just before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, according to a new federal investigation of the disaster.
The report issued Tuesday by the Chemical Safety Board is the latest in a string of federal and independent inquiries into the blowout of BP’s Macondo well, which killed 11 workers in the ensuing blast and spewed nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the sea, making it the country’s worst offshore environmental accident.
Although each report has exposed practices and events that led to the disaster, the investigations’ findings have overlapped enough to expose what was a highly dangerous deep-water drilling project marked by lax safety, poor communication and ad hoc decision-making.
The board’s report suggests that BP and Transocean Ltd., along with federal regulators, should have known better. After a 2005 explosion at its Texas City, Texas, oil refinery that killed 15 employees, BP vowed to institute a new safety system that assessed risks and hazards. Five years later, the company had made progress at its onshore activities but not offshore.
“When asked about rollout in the Gulf of Mexico, a high-level BP manager stated to the CSB, ‘We were just getting started,’” according to the Chemical Safety Board report.
Instead, BP, Transocean and the federal regulator, the Minerals Management Service, which has since been reorganized, paid attention to a checklist of worker slips and falls, which translate to lost man-hours and money. Even now, the report said, companies and federal regulators look at past events, such as fires and injuries, rather than adopting systems prevalent in other oil-producing countries to predict and prevent trouble.
“It is almost as if they are driving a car by looking in the rearview mirror,” the report concluded.
BP said that outside inquiries and its own investigation had prompted substantial changes. “After the accident BP alone stepped up and, as the CSB has recognized, has taken concrete steps to further enhance safety and risk management throughout its global operations,” the company said in a statement.
Transocean did not cooperate with the board investigation and is being sued by the Justice Department to comply with the board’s subpoenas.
In a statement, Transocean said, “We are gratified that the CSB recognized Transocean’s ongoing commitment to personal safety on all our rigs and in our constant drive for best practices, we will, as always, review industry recommendations regarding process safety management.”
The report noted that Transocean and BP both experienced near-misses that held important lessons that could have proved useful at the Macondo well. In December 2009, in “an incident that eerily foretold the fate of the Deepwater Horizon,” a Transocean drilling rig in the North Sea also had oil and gas flowing up the well onto the platform. Disaster was avoided because the blowout preventer staunched the flow. But Transocean’s findings were not “fully communicated” to workers outside the North Sea.
On March 8, 2010, more than a month before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil and gas traveled up the Macondo well for 33 minutes before BP workers and others realized it. According to the Chemical Safety Board, BP did nothing to address the delayed response to the well “kick.”
At the same time, federal regulators gave both companies prizes over the years for good safety programs. The year of the fatal disaster, Transocean awarded its top management bonuses for their safety record.
The report noted that BP, Transocean and many other companies already use a more comprehensive safety approach in countries that require it, such as Norway and Britain for North Sea operations. The report did not offer an explanation as to why BP did not employ such practices in the Gulf of Mexico, especially after the Texas City disaster.
Najmedin Meshkati, professor of civil, environmental and systems engineering at USC, said such fundamental change required a sustained commitment at the top level, which BP did not have.
Exploration and production at BP “had their own deep-seated culture” apart from the refining business, said Meshkati, a member of the National Academy of Engineering/National Research Council panel that issued its own report on the disaster. “I heard from a reliable source that in the pursuit of profits, BP’s longtime CEO, Lord John Browne, unofficially adopted Oscar Wilde’s quote, ‘consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative,’ as the company motto. And we all know well what inconsistency can do to system safety.”